The 1935 Dublin Tram and Bus Strike

In the Spring of 1935 almost 3,000 Dublin tram and bus drivers launched one of the longest transport strikes in Irish history. Before the workers emerged victorious after 11 weeks of a bitter struggle, the Fianna Fáil government had called up the army to try and break the strike, the IRA offered its assistance to the workers, and dozens of Dublin radicals, including one man from Dublin’s north inner city who would later die fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War, were rounded up and imprisoned.

On 1 March 1935 almost 3,000 transport workers, members of the ATGWU and the ITGWU, voted for strike action in support of a bus driver summarily dismissed from his employment with the Dublin United Tramway Company accused, without evidence, of dangerous driving. Announcing the decision, the Unions issued a joint statement,

“No-one regrets more than the men the inconvenience caused for the travelling public, but they say, with truth, that the owners of the tram and bus services of the city of Dublin should not be permitted to dismiss a man without at least having a just cause.”

The following day the streets of Dublin, “presented a deserted appearance. Taxi-cabs were in great demand and the jaunting car was brought back into full use”.

While strike action was initially taken in support of a sacked bus driver, there were long standing and unresolved issues relating to pay and working conditions in the Dublin United Tramway Company, which had a monopoly on the provision of bus and tram services in the city.

During the first week of the strike 3,000 workers marched from Liberty Hall to the Olympia Theatre headed by the Tramway Workers’ Band, where a mass meeting heard William Scott, President of the Dublin Council of Trade Unions, declare it, “a glorious thing that trade unionism in Dublin had reached such a pitch that 3,000 workers came out on strike for the rights of one.” The Vice President of ITGWU, Thomas Kennedy criticised the private monopoly of public transport services and said that the tram and bus services should be a State or Municipal undertaking.

The meeting concluded with the passing of a resolution demanding: the restoration of pay cuts made in wages in 1927 and 1929; extended holidays, improved wages, and conditions for new staff; and pay increases for the garage staffs, overhead wires men and permanent ways staff.

Pickets were placed on all depots and offices of the company and as the strike entered its second week, 130 members of the National Union of Vehicle Builders downed tools and joined the strike following the suspension of some of its members, owing to the slackness of work following the stoppage of services. At another mass demonstration on College Green Trade Union leaders declared that they would support only one kind of settlement: a settlement with honour for the workers. Meanwhile, the Dublin Chamber of Commerce called for strikes on Dublin’s essential services to be declared illegal.

Fianna Fáil Minister for Trade and Commerce, Seán Lemass, intervened in the dispute and made proposals to the Unions, which included the reinstatement of the sacked bus driver at the centre of the dispute, and discussions in respect of wages and working conditions to resume under the auspices of the Conciliation Board. These fell fell far short of what the workers sought and at a meeting in the Olympia Theatre the Minister’s proposals were roundly rejected, a decision which was “received with wild cheering”.

In response, Lemass accused the workers “of deliberately embarking on a policy of causing the maximum degree of public inconvenience”. He threatened to mobilise the army to provide alternative transport services, and further to introduce legislation to “prevent such an emergency occurring in the future.” The drivers subsequently offered to provide public transport services without wages while negotiations continued, on the condition that the company was prepared to provide free transport services to the public. This was rejected by management at the Dublin United Tramway Company, stating it found the proposal “objectionable in principle.” The workers called on the wider trade union movement for support in resisting government attempts to provide an alternative service.

However, within days the government ordered out the Free State Army and in late March military trucks appeared on the streets of Dublin to provide transport to the public. Army vehicles ran from 7.00am to 10.00am and from 4.30pm to 7.00pm, with the various pick up points published in the newspapers. They did not run on Sundays.

In a sensational development the IRA Army Council issued a statement denouncing the government’s actions in seeking to break the strike and offered its services to the workers. In a statement addressed to the Strike Committee of the Dublin Tram and Bus Workers and issued to the media, the IRA said,

“The action of the Free State government in using the Free State army transport for strike breaking purposes in the interests of the company to which the government has given a monopoly constitutes a definite challenge to all workers.”

The Army Council expressed its willingness to assist the transport workers in their struggle and in mobilising maximum public support.

As the dispute escalated tensions on the streets heightened. Around midnight on 24th March two policemen were shot at and wounded while on patrol in Grafton Street. The police officers were approached by three cyclists, were allegedly ordered to put their hands up, and shot in the legs. Another policeman was fired on at Burgh Quay, but escaped uninjured. Two men, said to be bus drivers, Michael Byrne and Herbert Earnshaw, were arrested and detained at the Bridewell for questioning about the shootings, but were later released without charge.

Police leave in the Metropolitan District was suspended and all available officers were ordered to be prepared for emergency duty. Armoured cars patrolled the city, while on the outskirts police lorries packed with uniformed Gardaí were on patrol.

In a series of raids over the following days scores of police and armed detectives swooped on the homes of republicans across the city. Up to 40 people were arrested including prominent republicans Peader O’Donnell and Mick Price, both of whom had left the IRA the previous year to establish the Republican Congress. The editor of the republican newspaper An Phoblacht, Donal Donoghue, was arrested in a raid on its offices, and the offices of the Communist Party on Great Strand Street were raided, where Jim Larkin Jnr was arrested. Trade Union offices were also targeted. Banba Hall, headquarters of the Grocer’s Assistants’ Union on Parnell Square, was raided by armed detectives, but there were no arrests.

Ten men were subsequently brought before a Military Tribunal in Dublin and charged with membership of an ‘unlawful association’, namely the Irish Citizen Army, and with refusing to answer questions regarding their movements. Among the documents seized during raids on the home of Mick Price was the Constitution of the Irish Citizen Army and copies of the ‘Citizen Army Bulletin’. One of those charged before the Military Tribunal was John (Jack) Nalty from East Wall, who would later volunteer with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. He was killed at the battle of Ebro in 1938 and is immortalised in the Christy Moore song ‘Viva La Quinta Brigada’. Several prominent IRA members were also charged and imprisoned in the Curragh military camp. Taoiseach Éamon de Valera told an executive meeting of Fianna Fáil that he was losing patience with the IRA. Just over a year later the IRA was declared an unlawful association.

Jack Nalty in his International Brigade uniform

By mid-April, six weeks into the strike and with no sign of a settlement, Dublin citizens were reported to be ‘philosophic’ and enjoying the fine weather, while owners of private cars were said to be ‘steadily enlarging the circle of their acquaintance’. A strike fund was opened and the first person to contribute was a young factory girl who it was reported ‘sent 5s and 6d from her small earnings’. PT Daly, Secretary of the Trades Council said, ‘we appreciate that lead given and I hope this magnificent example will be followed by others.’ At a mass meeting of bus and tramway workers in late April at College Green, which was addressed by amongst others, 1916 veteran Helena Moloney, representing the Irish Women Workers’ Union, the government, who had marched to the GPO only the week before to commemorate the 1916 Rising, was accused of prolonging the strike and of betraying the ideals of Connolly and Pearse.

After eleven weeks, on Saturday 18th May, the strike finally ended and tram and bus drivers returned to work. The driver at the centre of the dispute had previously been offered and accepted alternative employment with the Sweepstakes, much to the consternation of many of the workers. What remained to be resolved was the pay and working conditions at the Dublin United Tramway Company. Following a series of intense negotiations, which involved a sub-Committee of Dublin Corporation’s General Purposes Committee, the company conceded to the Union demands and agreed to an increase in the pay of drivers and conductors, the partial restoration of cuts made in 1928 and 1929 for all grades, and improved working conditions. Further negotiations on superannuation, minimum wage rates for overhead wiring cablemen and standardisation of rates and conditions, and a night allowance for those working in the garages and workshops were agreed to be discussed at the Conciliation Board.

The proposals were put to the workers at a meeting in the Savoy Cinema on 17th May and were accepted in a ballot by an overwhelming majority, 2,112 in favour and 605 against. At 4.45am the following morning the first tram left Dalkey for the city for the first time in eleven weeks.